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Santa Clara County to Improve Restaurant Inspection Data Posting and Evaluate Restaurant Grading System

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CALIF. – This week, the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors approved a report from the Department of Environmental Health (DEH) that lays out a plan to upgrade the data posted online from restaurant inspections and to explore with stakeholders whether to implement a placard or grading system.
Under the plan, DEH would begin immediately including site-specific observations collected in the field available to the public online by transcribing the inspector’s hand-written inspection report observations into the database of information that is displayed online.  Currently, the online inspection summaries do not adequately describe those cases where restaurants were found to be in violation of the Health and Safety Code.
Supervisor Joe Simitian, District 5, raised concerns about the lack of transparency available on the existing report summaries.  “Food-borne illness is a significant public health issue,” he said.  “Both the fact that a violation occurred and the detailed information about the specific violations need to be available online.”
As an interim step, until the Department is able to develop a computerized field inspection program, which is expected to take a year, site-specific observations will be transcribed and posted online. The Department estimates up to18,000 restaurant inspection reports would be manually entered over the one-year interim period at total cost of $35,000, including training, staff transcription time, and quality control monitoring.
“The suggestions that staff have brought are a really good first start, an improvement over what is now in place,” said Supervisor Mike Wasserman, District 1. “At the end of the day we want to make it easier for the public to look up the data and evaluate which restaurants have a better health and safety record.”
In 2001, the Department of Environmental Health began posting inspection results at the Board’s direction.  However, the site-specific observations in the restaurant inspection reports are documented in the field staff’s hand-written report, and monitored by DEH, but not included online.
“Once the computerized inspection system is in place, the public will have access to the actual inspections reports,” said Greg Van Wassenhove, Department of Agriculture and Environmental Management Director.  “We will also ensure that the reports are clear and easy for the general public to understand.”
The Board’s approval means that the Department will soon begin transcribing the inspector’s hand-written report observations into the database of information that is displayed online. The computer upgrade is expected to begin in June 2013. Ultimately, the field specialists will be able to input and generate digitally-prepared inspections reports, which can be transferred directly to the Department’s website for public access.
“Protecting public health is the County’s greatest priority,” said Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Ken Yeager.  “Our restaurant inspection program can do better at communicating information to the public.  I’m glad that we are taking steps to better serve our residents.”
At the meeting, the Board directed staff to evaluate the feasibility of a restaurant grading/ placarding system.  Simitian also asked staff to research creating a financial penalty for restaurants that do not provide their inspection reports to the public upon request, in violation of state law.
“The goal of a grading/placarding system is to improve performance of food services and restaurants, allow folks to do comparative shopping easily, and make public information more accessible to the public,” said Simitian.
The Department of Environmental Health will report to the Board’s Housing, Land Use Environment and Transportation Committee in May on its efforts to establish a stakeholder group to examine these issues.
Several counties in California have instituted or are instituting restaurant grading systems, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Alameda.
Media Contact: Gwendolyn Mitchell/Lingxia Meng, Office of Public Affairs (408) 299-5130; Heather Forshey, Consumer Protection Division (408) 918- 1958
Posted: March 13, 2013